Reviews

Review: THE WOLF (Under the Northern Sky #1), by Leo Carew

I received this novel from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

My luck with debut novels seems to keep holding strong, and Leo Carew’s The Wolf is the latest in this string of fortunate encounters, an epic fantasy story set in what looks like an alternate version of Britain, called Albion, where baseline humans and outlandish warrior races compete for primacy through bloody wars.

Readers are plunged straight into the midst of one of these wars, pitting the Sutherners against the Anakim, a northern tribe of veritable giants, long-lived and quite strong thanks to the inner bone plates that armor their chests: knowing that superior numbers will not be enough against the Anakim’s battle prowess, the Sutherners devise a trap that works successfully, forcing their foes into an unheard-of retreat after their leader, the Black Lord, is killed in action leaving his 18-year old son Roper in command of the army.  The defeat weighs heavily on the Anakim’s morale and gives Uvoren, the highest-placed general and a renowned hero, the opportunity to lay the blame on Roper and seize the leadership: Roper will have to learn the subtleties of politics and authority very quickly as he fights a war on two fronts – the inner one, where his clash with Uvoren fast escalates into deadly territory, and the outward one, as the Sutherners, emboldened by the recent victory, rekindle their expansionist plans.

The Wolf is a novel that satisfies both in world-building and in characterization: in the island of Albion the river Abus works as a demarcation between the Sutherners and the Anakim, the former viewing the latter as monsters, fallen angels, barbarous savages, while the Anakim see their historical opponents as weak and lacking in honor.  Both are wrong, of course, mostly because of ignorance on either side: we readers instead enjoy the opportunity to get to know them better, and to see how land and living conditions can shape a people and forge their mindset.

The South enjoys a more agreeable climate, fertile lands, and therefore its inhabitants have created a more laid-back society, but also one in need of demographics-related expansion, so they inevitably turn their gaze toward the territory of their long-time enemy and, through the old strategy of demonizing the adversary, mount a campaign of invasion, plunder and destruction with the goal of beating the Anakim into submission. The northern warriors, on the other hand, have built their society on military prowess and on a strong link with the land they dwell in, a symbiotic bond that in some cases prevents them from giving in to the invading army, choosing death rather than relinquishing their foothold.   

A the heart of the Black Lands, the Anakim territory, lies the Hindrunn fortress, a massive construct of stone that no enemy could breach and inside which the Anakim seek not so much a form of security as a way of isolating themselves from the rest of the world, the microcosm in which they feel truly attuned to the land in which they live.  The glimpses we are afforded inside the Hindrunn’s walls speak of a complex, lively society that belies the Sutherners’ prejudice about the Anakim’s savagery.

On this fascinating background move some interesting figures, drawn with such skill that the main antagonists – Roper the fledgling Black Lord and Bellamus, the upstart who gained command of the Sutherner army – come across as equally sympathetic so that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to pick a favorite.     Roper is young and quite inexperienced: his father enjoys little narrative space before his demise in battle, but he seems like a harsh, unforgiving man and one not too prone on passing on some wisdom to his son.  So being both inexperienced and young, Roper initially flounders in his role as ruler of the Black Lands and risks to be easy prey to Uvoren’s power play; he rebounds quite easily though, finding a few allies and heeding any sensible advice that his directed his way.  He learns on the fly, and he’s as ready to treasure what he learns just as he’s ready to acknowledge his mistakes: as ruthless as he needs to be, he remains able to elicit the reader’s sympathy all throughout the book, growing in depth and complexity as the story progresses.

Bellamus, for his part, must struggle against his humble origins to emerge in a society that pays more attention to circumstances of birth rather than skills: his liaison with Queen Aramilla plays an important part in his ascent toward command of the Sutherner army, but he reaches the goal through sheer determination and a years-long study of the Anakim, for whom he harbors more than the interest of a military commander analyzing his adversary.  There is an uncommon form of respect, almost fascination, in Bellamus’ keen interest in all things Anakim, so that, once he realizes than despite the long years of study he only scratched the surface of this adversaries’ culture, and did not understand what the Anakim soul truly is, the ensuing frustration weighs more heavily than any defeat.

With such focus on battles and military prowess one might think there is little or no space for women in The Wolf, but although they are not exactly prominent, what we see of them in Anakim society makes for intriguing glimpses I hope will be given more space in the next novels.  While Sutherner women seem relegated in the traditional roles this medieval-like milieu allows them, Anakim women, though apparently enjoying only a supporting position in their society, are afforded more freedom and are shown repeatedly as its backbone: one of the glimpses I was talking about concerns the office of Historian, the women to whom the totally oral traditions and past of the Anakim are entrusted, since they have no written language worthy of that name; they are the holders of their people’s collective memory and so the custodians of all that makes the Anakim what they are.

And then there is Keturah, the woman Roper marries to sign a political pact and who quickly becomes his partner, his confidante and his best ally: when we first meet her we see her as quite outspoken and bold, then we slowly learn about her cunning political sense and her ability to create a web of useful relationships.  The fact that she’s universally treated with respect and even affection by her peers speaks loudly about this side of Anakim society, and is another detail that begs a deeper look.

All of the above might seem like scattered notions, and in a way they are because it’s difficult to take in all of the complexities of this novel and the story it tells, but I believe that The Wolf must be enjoyed as I did, with as little information – or preconceptions – as possible: this way it will be easier to get happily lost in this fascinating world. And to come out of it with a strong desire to know more.

 

My Rating: 

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Reviews

Short Story Review: ADRIFT, by Terry Burlison

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most.

BAEN 2016 FREE STORIES

ADRIFT was the very first story in the anthology, and a very promising beginning at that: set during the construction of a space station in Earth orbit it showcases the hard life of the techs actually building the structure and the support people taking care of them during the work shift.  Dan “Cole” Colton is a three-tour veteran, despite his young age, and when we meet him he’s scolding one of the recruits because he’s still unable to think about the differences in motion, mass and momentum one finds in space, as opposed to the gravity well.

The incident over, Cole moves aside to refuel his power pack, and that’s when tragedy strikes: an impact sends him careening away from the station, damages his suit’s instruments and leaving him briefly unconscious. Once he comes to again, he realizes he’s quite far away from any form of rescue, and tries to prepare for the inevitable end, not knowing that his co-workers and the station’s personnel are working frantically to retrieve him – alive and well, if possible.

What follows is both a tale of survival in the most hostile environment man even faced, and a study of humanity in extreme conditions: what I liked most was the strong sense of community that grows among people living and working so far from the only home humanity ever knew, and the way everyone is giving their all to bring Cole back.  The figure that stands out the most is that of Shay, one of the operatives in Command and Control: she’s new and feel quite unsure of herself in this new surroundings, but the emergency seems to unlock as-yet-untapped resources that make her pivotal to the operation.

And then there are the descriptions of space, and Earth, that color this story with a few beautiful touches of… almost poetry, for want of a better description, and that contribute to make this short tale a very satisfying read.

 

My Rating: 

 

Reviews

Review: THE CLOCKWORK DYNASTY, by Daniel H. Wilson

Every time a book starts strongly from the very first pages, I know I might be in for a delightful experience: this was the case with The Clockwork Dynasty, and even though my initial reaction was curtailed by a few minor quibbles and a lukewarm ending that did not do justice to the story’s buildup, still the journey was a fun one.

June Stefanov is a researcher who specializes in mechanical artifacts from the past, and when we first encounter her she is meeting with the members of a secluded religious sect in possession of an ancient doll whose intricate inner works bring June to the discovery of the avtomats’ existence.   These are mechanical creatures built to resemble human beings, powered by a mysterious core appropriately called anima and able to function almost indefinitely.

June’s interest comes from a relic inherited from her grandfather, who survived the bloody Stalingrad siege during WWII and witnessed an extraordinary sight: a tall, apparently invulnerable soldier who was able to crush German troopers and tanks as if they were made of paper, and in whose wake young Stefanov found the artifact bequeathed to June – an avtomat’s anima.

From this point onwards, the story develops in two different and converging time tracks (with a few forays into a more distant past): the present follows June and her search for the key to the puzzle that so unexpectedly fell in her lap, and the past focuses on the avtomats Pyotr/Peter and his sister Elena, whose bodies were recovered at the time of czar Peter the Great and restored to function by the court’s latest mechanician.  I found Peter and Elena’s track by far the more fascinating of the two: we see them gaining more and more awareness of themselves and the world from the moment of their re-awakening, searching for a purpose and trying to fulfill their Word, the defining command built into each avtomat’s anima, the element that determines their character.

Elena obeys logicka, the pursuit of knowledge and reason, and her struggles in that direction managed to endear her to me despite her sometimes brittle disposition: Elena has been shaped like a little girl, so that whoever looks at her, unaware of her nature, tends to take her at face value, seeing only the childish form and ignoring the keen intellect underneath. Peter himself tends to fall into this trap, if for different reasons: he considers her his sister and he works under the strong compulsion to cherish and protect her, and as well-meaning as this urge is, Elena chafes under what she perceives as a smothering influence, one that prevents her from following her own directive.  In the long run, this situation creates between them a rift that keeps them apart for centuries, always leaving an empty place in Peter’s soul, one he seems unable to fill.

Being bound by pravda, a combination of truth and justice, Peter tries to obey his Word by seeking rulers to serve, but time and again discovering none of them are worthy of his loyalty, and that he’s ultimately betraying his basic commandment, so that he becomes increasingly despondent. If I could sympathize with Elena (the woman/child no one could take seriously), I felt deeply for Peter and his search for the purpose that could define him, and give his existence meaning: it might have been easier for his sister to adapt to a changing world, since her ceaseless studies helped her better understand herself and her place in the world, but Peter does not enjoy such luxury, so we see him searching in vain for that meaning, only to have it always escape his grasp.  Part of the problem, as we learn along the way, comes from the loss of memory resulting from a catastrophic shutdown: needing to recapture his lost self, Peter latches on the closest thing, his connection to Elena and the strong feelings of family she engenders. Those feeling come across as quite poignant considering Peter’s nature: we often think of machines – no matter how sophisticated – as logical constructs devoid of emotion, but these avtomats are something else indeed.

Given the intensity of the narrative threads focused on Peter and Elena, the chapters devoted to the present and June’s journey of discovery feel like something of a letdown. For starters my impression was that she was there as a mere tool, someone needed to connect the various “dots” and therefore not deserving of full character development: I never felt any connection with June as a person, not in the same way and with the same depth as with Peter, or Elena.   Worse still, June shows several markers for the Mary Sue Syndrome: she’s exceptionally good at what she does, she can solve problems on the fly, and she shows impressive amounts of courage and physical endurance that don’t match with her personality as an academic.  If her character makeup wanted to give off a Sarah Connor vibe (and the beginning of the book did remind me a little of the first Terminator movie, thanks to the encounter with Peter’s nemesis and his relentless chase), I’m afraid that from my point of view it missed the mark.

This, and the ending that felt quite anticlimatic, did detract a little from my initial appreciation of the story, and downsized the rating I was ready to assign at the beginning – still, it was a good, entertaining read and I don’t regret the time I invested in this book.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE FIXED STARS (An October Daye Story), by Seanan McGuire

 

Finding a complementary short story to Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series is always a pleasant discovery, and it’s an even better one when, as is the case of this short work I found in the Baen Free Library, it deals with events and people other than Toby and her circle of friends and family, widening the background of this complex and many-faceted Urban Fantasy series.

(click on the link to read the story online)

It took me a little while to find my bearings in The Fixed Stars, until I understood that it tells of an old battle between Faerie’s firstborns and their changeling descendants, here called merlins – the reason for which I understood once their leader came on-stage, a powerful, revered warrior named Emrys.  The story is told from the point of view of a firstborn, watching the besieging merlin army camped under the walls of Broceliande castle before what will be the decisive battle.  The narrating firstborn goes here under the name of Nimue but says this is only one of many, and when at the end of the story her brother calls her “Annie”, my theory about her real identity was confirmed (and my pleasure at being right and meeting her here): compelled to always tell the truth, Nimue plays a dangerous gamble in the bloody game between the fae and their mixed-blood descendants, one that will end badly no matter what, since she’s aware that “the nobility […] was eager to wet their swords on merlin blood. The fact that the men outside our walls were our distant descendants didn’t matter to them. My brothers and sisters had raised their children to believe that nothing outside of Faerie had value”.

The leanings of Nimue’s heart are quite clear here, and they go a long way toward explaining her attitude in later times, when she will often lend her gruff but precious help to a certain changeling…

A sad and lovely story, and one I’m very happy to have found.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: LOST BOY: The True Story of Captain Hook, by Christina Henry

Once we grow up we are able to acknowledge the basic cruelty that lies at the root of many (if not all) fairy tales: think about Cinderella’s stepsisters chopping off their toes to make the crystal shoe fit; or Snow White’s stepmother asking the hunter to bring her the girl’s heart – the examples are endless.  I believe that such brutal details might serve as a subliminal reminder that the world is not fair and that children should not trust blindly.  Still, there are some tales that seem to point only to lightness and fun, especially in the more widely known, and edulcorated, Disney movie version, as is the case of the story of Peter Pan: I remember watching some scenes with my nephew when he was little, and even potentially frightening situations – like being chased by a crocodile – were turned into amusing and non-threatening vignettes.

Now imagine my dismay once I encountered Ms. Henry’s version of Peter Pan, a character I’ve always been lukewarm about but never actually disliked, even though his name is connected to the syndrome shown by men who refuse to grow up and take responsibility for their lives, so that it shines a less-than-bright light on the character.  Lost Boy, on the other hand, gives us an interpretation of Peter that is as chilling as it is engrossing, and I was surprised at the intensity of the hatred I felt for him reading this novel. This is indeed the kind of story that can’t leave you unmoved…

The story is told from the point of view of Jamie, Peter’s very first companion on the island and for quite some time the only one: he, like the other boys who will later follow, was lured to Neverland with the promise of a life of endless fun and games, free from hunger or pain. In theory, the boys Peter brings over are escaping from an existence of Dickensian drudgery, but in reality it’s not always so: there is a recurring fragment of memory that haunts Jamie and that will later on showcase Peter’s duplicity with dramatic starkness.  The real reason the boys are brought to the island is the fulfillment of Peter’s narcissistic tendencies, his need to always be at the center of attention, admired, adored, idolized: it would not really be such a terrible life if he didn’t drive his companions to reckless escapades and bloody battles with the neighboring pirates…

It’s trough Jamie’s eyes that we see behind the façade of never-ending play and fun: the island is a dangerous place, inhabited by ravenous crocodiles that have nothing in common with their playful counterparts in Disney’s movie, then there are the Many-Eyed, a kind of huge arachnids whose blood is poisonous and burns like acid; or the pirates might resent the boys’ more daring escapades and retaliate with violence.  As if that were not enough, there are always injuries and illness to contend with, or the violent Battles pitching boys against each other as Peter enjoys the spectacle like a Roman emperor of old, and which has caused the death of many young people over the years: it has fallen to Jamie to bury them, as it falls to him to care for the newcomers and to see that everyone is clothed, fed, and in good health.  Yes, because Peter is extremely careless of his playmates, just like a child who unthinkingly tosses aside a toy that does not interest him any more, or is broken: as long as they provide the willing and cheering audience he craves, he’s the genial host, the enthusiastic companion, the charismatic leader; but as soon as someone stops being entertaining, Peter is quick to adopt the “out of sight, out of mind” policy, when not leaving the various island’s dangers work for him in removing the nuisance from the equation.

As the story opens, Peter has quickly tired of his new acquisition, five-year old Charlie, a child far too young to be taken away from the Other Place or to participate in the boys’ increasingly dangerous escapades, and therefore boring and useless according to Peter’s rules.  Jamie has become his guardian and protector and Charlie has developed a sort of hero worship for him that does not agree with Peter’s worldview, and what’s worse, the time and energies Jamie devotes to the newest arrival are time and energies he does not give Peter – a truly unforgivable sin.  The picture that emerges from Jamie’s point of view is indeed disturbing, with Peter appearing at best as a self-centered narcissist and at worst as a dangerous sociopath, a jealous self-declared god: as the story progresses the information we gather becomes more and more unnerving, destroying every notion we might have held until that moment about Neverland and Peter’s entourage.

On the other hand, Jamie comes across as a very sympathetic character and one that’s quite easy to love: in a group of people who have run away from dire situations and unloving families, Jamie takes on the role of a parent and, in some measure, of a leader who possesses all the qualities that Peter lacks. What’s fascinating is that as Jamie’s disaffection mounts, estranging him from his former friend, still he harbors a measure of guilt about those feelings, as if his growing consciousness of Peter’s shortcomings were a betrayal – that is, until he realizes that his loyalty was one-sided and the other boy did nothing but take and take, without giving anything back.  What happens at that point is extraordinary, because Jamie realizes his body is growing, that he’s leaving the eternal childhood in which he was frozen by the island’s magic: each growing spurt is accompanied by pain – and that’s another fascinating metaphor, indeed – brought on by the increasing awareness of Peter’s dual cruelty and carelessness, not unlike those of an escalating serial killer.

This loss of innocence, of that childish vision that prevents us from seeing the nastier side of life, is the most poignant element in Lost Boy, and even the realization that Jamie is fated to become Peter’s arch-enemy, Captain Hook, isn’t as heartbreaking as the chain of losses he must endure.  To say that he left a deep mark on my imagination would be a huge understatement indeed.

 

My Rating: 

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Short Story Review: LOST, by Seanan Mcguire

 

Read the story online

 

Reading this shortly after my encounter with Christina Henry’s “Lost Boy”, this story resonated with me in a deeper way that it would have otherwise: it’s a tale about eternal childhood and adventures and it speaks of the need for both, and also the price that it entails.

The story is told from the point of view of Daniel, now well into adulthood and probably old age, and he recalls what happened when he was just past his fifteenth birthday and the children of the world, those younger than him – including his sister Torrey – started looking fixedly at the night sky and humming a strange, compelling song.  Shortly afterwards, in one fateful night, all those children disappeared, never to be seen again.

This is a bittersweet story – more bitter than sweet since poor Daniel is marked by the awareness that he had whatever touched his sister and all the others within his grasp, but just because of an accident of birth he could not take part in what happened. And he’s one of the few who is unable to put a different face on this kind of rapture and call it an epidemic, like the rest of the world does to cover its shared incomprehension of the event.

The theme of innocence needing to go on beyond the time when adulthood sets in and takes away our dreams, our capacity for them, seems to be one that’s very dear to the author, and here she managed to convey it in a way that I found deeply moving, even in the unavoidable cruelty toward those who remained behind.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE LAST SEA GOD (The Bone War #1), by Ashley Capes

I received this ARC from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

In truth, I did not know whether the story spanning the books in the Bone Mask trilogy would move toward a sequel: at the end of the final volume, many threads had been carried to conclusion – some of them with a tragic epilogue – and the world seemed destined to find its way toward a sort of new balance after the widespread turmoil that had shaken it.  Still, other narrative paths had been left hanging, and from there this new Bone War trilogy takes its start: even though it’s a brand new narrative trail, I would not recommend starting from here, because its roots dig quite deep into what went before, and you will need that knowledge to move easily in this new territory.

Unlike the previous installments of the story, The Last Sea God follows a good number of points of view, some well-known, some new. Notch, the former soldier-turned-adventurer who played one of the central roles in the Bone Mask trilogy, does not find himself in a very good place: at the beginning, we meet him as he’s plagued by guilt for Sofia’s ultimate sacrifice, and tries to drown his sorrow in alcohol – quite a departure from the determined character we learned to know in the past.  The only way he can get out of his despondency is by launching himself into what looks like an impossible task: traveling to the Ecsoli’s land and find a way to reverse the Sacrifice required by powerful masks, so that he can assuage his remorse over having failed his duty to Sofia.  What he and his companion Alosus (a character I’ve come to care for quite a bit) will find there will be much more than he bargained for, both in the matter of acquired knowledge and in the way of what we might call foreign politics…

Flir, Notch’s long-time comrade, takes a journey back to her home of Renovar, to convey King Seto’s peace overtures after the failed invasion from a group of her own compatriots, and also to acquire some more powerful bones to replenish Anaskar’s stores, that have been almost completely depleted by the war with the Ecsoli – with the exception of old Argeon.  This path down memory lane is quite difficult for Flir, especially where her peculiar abilities are concerned, but this relatively minor discomfort is overshadowed by the discoveries she makes about her old home.  Her ambassadorial duties must soon be placed on a back burner when she finds out that there is something quite sinister going on, something that more than hints at sorcery, or worse.

Pathfinder Ain, of the desert-dwelling Medah, makes a welcome return here: after the first book, where he enjoyed one of the three main points of view, he was later afforded far less space than I would have liked, so finding him again here, and seeing him face a deadly threat to his people, more than made up for the past.   Having brokered an alliance between the Medah and Anaskari, he’s leading the extraction of more precious bones from the desert, when his village is attacked by a veritable horde of weird people, bent on stealing the bones he and his compatriots have excavated: it will fall to him, true to his Pathfinder duties, to forge a new road toward salvation and the solution of a new, terrifying mystery.

King Seto, for his part, looks like the living proof for the famous Shakespearian quote about the uneasiness of the head wearing a crown: Anaskar is still suffering from the Ecsoli invasion’s aftermath, and something nasty is brewing in the background, something that seems well beyond Seto’s ability to fully comprehend or stop.

The newcomers on the scene are Nia, of the grove dwellers, who we encountered before but too briefly to get to know her well, and Fiore, a Storm Singer in training, who despite her your age might prove pivotal toward solving the riddles that the new conspiracy based in Anaskar is laying on King Seto’s path.  Both of them provide further insights into what is happening, either in the grove or in Anaskar, where dark forces are clearly bent on subverting the attempts to return to a normal life.

There is indeed much to take in while reading The Last Sea God, and I needed all of my powers of recollection and concentration to juggle the myriad details that compose this story like a very convoluted puzzle.  The increased number of points of view did not help, either, and I must admit it felt as if the narrative focus became somewhat diluted if compared with the more contained solutions previously adopted.  The characters are literally scattered all over the world, where strange, often weird events involve them and create separate and apparently unconnected story-lines, and this time more than ever I had to “battle” with the difficulties presented by author’s narrative style, that is more discursive than descriptive, and therefore required me to pay increased attention to avoid being distracted and missing vital clues.

Of course this does not mean I did not enjoy the story, because I certainly did, but at the end of the volume I felt as if I had been presented with only a glimpse of things to come – a great number of things, to be precise – but no hint about how they all individually fit into the grand scheme of events, or where they were headed, and I confess that this left me a little frustrated, despite the certainty that in the end all will become clear. Sadly, patience is not one my virtues…  🙂

So, to end on a more upbeat note and remove that hint of frustration I mentioned, I want to spend a few words about the book’s cover, which is a departure from the previously adopted style, and shows a simple background – like fractured marble – on which the title draws all of the attention. From my point of view it’s quite eye-catching and it somehow sums up the core of the story, that of a world on the verge of breaking down because of a series of treacherous events. As they say, an image can be as powerful as words, if not more.

 

My Rating: